NONFICTION REVIEW: "MetaMaus"

  • Article by: PATRICIA HAGEN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 19, 2011 - 5:20 PM

The story behind Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust story, "Maus."

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Art Spiegelman at work in his lower Manhattan studio on July 22, 2003.

Photo: Sara Krulwich, New York Times

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Twenty-five years ago, who would have guessed that a cat and mouse comic strip account of the Holocaust would become a modern classic? Certainly not the many publishers who declined "Maus," 10 of whose rejection letters are published in "MetaMaus." (One publisher rather puzzlingly deemed it too much like a TV sitcom: Ah, yes, the old cats-mice-and-pigs-at-Auschwitz plot.) Literary agent Scott Meredith said, "If anybody buys that, I'll eat my hat!"

One hopes that Mr. Meredith had a tasty fedora on hand, because, of course, "Maus" was published (by Pantheon), sold very well, and became the first comic book -- or graphic novel, if you prefer, though Art Spiegelman himself uses the term "comics" -- to win a Pulitzer Prize.

"MetaMaus" details the creation and aftermath of "Maus" and "Maus II" via an extended interview between Hillary Chute, an English professor at the University of Chicago, and Spiegelman. The three longest chapters provide nuanced and richly illustrated answers to the questions every reader has probably asked: "Why the Holocaust?" "Why mice?" and "Why comics?" Chute is a skilled and knowledgeable interviewer, Spiegelman a witty, introspective subject, so the process yields insightful observations on the nature of comics, the relationship between reality and narrative, the dynamics of families, and the Holocaust itself.

About the animals -- the mice, in particular -- Spiegelman remarks on the paradox that "while the mice allowed for a distancing from the horrors," they also allowed both author and reader to enter the narrative more deeply because using animals precludes such distracting questions as, "Is that what that guy really looked like?" Although "Maus" has been criticized for portraying Jews as mice (too timid and victimlike), and zoologist Desmond Morris claimed that "Maus" set cats' reputations back a thousand years, Spiegelman talks of repeatedly finding visuals that "rhymed" with his portrayals, ranging from a walking stick from Auschwitz with Mickey Mouse carved on it to the popular website "Cats That Look Like Hitler."

"If I had decided to draw the Jews as rhinos, I don't think there would have been as many cultural correlations," he said.

Spiegelman is particularly caustic on the subject of "Holokitsch" ("OK. The Holocaust is kind of a bummer, you know, but maybe if we do a 'Fiddler on the Roof' thing with cuter mice we could make a go if it"), something he successfully avoids in both "Maus" and "MetaMaus." "It was hard to revisit 'Maus,'" he said, the book that both "made me and has haunted me ever since; hard to revisit the ghosts of my family, the death-stench of history, and my own past." Hard, but -- for the reader, at least -- well worth it.

A final note: "MetaMaus" comes with a DVD crammed with features, including the full text of "Maus" and "Maus II," critical essays on the books, audio interviews, transcripts, sketches, primary documents, drafts, and much, much more.

Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

WHY MICE? WHY COMICS?
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  • MetaMaus, by Art Spiegelman

  • METAMAUS

    By: Art Spiegelman. • Publisher: Pantheon, 300 pages, $35.

    Review: Spiegelman is witty and introspective, and he provides insightful observations on the nature of comics, the relationship between reality and narrative, and the Holocaust itself.

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